Our skin is our best winter coat, protecting us from the cold and infection. But dry air and frigid temperatures can be hard on our outer layer. Proper seasonal care can help counteract these conditions.
One of the most common skin problems in winter is dry skin. Low humidity contributes to this, as do some of the things we like to do in winter – like turning up the thermostat and sitting close to a fireplace. Frequent handwashing, which benefits our overall health, can really dry out hands. When skin is too dry it becomes vulnerable to itching and cracking, which can lead to infection and other problems.
Dry skin relief
Small changes can help maintain skin moisture. Instead of lathering up with harsh soap and hot water at bath time, try using limited amounts of gentle cleanser with warm water, which is less drying. Keep showers and baths to under 10 minutes. Take advantage of the steam in the air by closing the bathroom door. Gently pat skin dry with a soft towel.
Apply moisturizer after bathing and handwashing while skin is still damp. Creams and ointments may be more effective than light lotions. But put away the scented creams and deodorant soaps for now, which can be drying. Choose “fragrance-free” skincare, avoiding products labeled “unscented” that may contain irritating chemicals.
Chapped lips are uncomfortable and can crack and bleed. Ease chapping with lip balm applied several times a day. It’s important that the balm actually feel soothing. Products with ingredients like camphor or peppermint may make lips sting or tingle, which is actually a sign of irritation, not healing. When headed outdoors, use balm with SPF 30 or higher to prevent sun damage to dry, cracked lips.
Dress for the season
Hands can be especially prone to winter dryness, so frequent moisturizing is recommended. Try a moisturizing beauty bar for washing. Wear protective gloves while shoveling snow, walking in the cold, or washing dishes to keep hands warm and dry. Some dryness and cracking in winter may be normal. A hand rash might be something more. For rashes or excessive irritation, contact a board-certified dermatologist.
What else in the environment can make skin more comfortable in winter? Wear clothing made of soft, natural fabrics like cotton and silk against the skin and under wool or other fabrics that are itchy or rough. Wash laundry in gentle, “hypoallergenic” laundry detergent. Consider running a humidifier in the home to add moisture to the air.
Excessively dry skin may also be a sign of another health problem. If dry skin persists or worsens, see a board-certified dermatologist.
Another skin concern in winter is the severe and even permanent damage caused by prolonged exposure to below-freezing temperatures – known as frostbite. Symptoms include redness and stinging, burning, throbbing or prickling, followed by numbness. If these occur, go indoors immediately and try warming skin gradually and gently. Don’t rub skin or submerge in hot water. If sensation doesn’t return or skin turns gray, go to an emergency room immediately.
The best approach is to avoid frostbite. Be mindful of outdoor temperatures and conditions. Dress appropriately, protecting feet, toes and hands. Cover head and ears and, when very cold, protect nose and face with a scarf or mask. Drink plenty of water or sports drink – thirst may not be as obvious on cold days but becoming dehydrated increases the risks.
For more about winter skin tips:
Dry skin: Overview (aad.org)
Video: Dry skin relief (aad.org)
How to prevent and treat frostbite (aad.org)
Don’t let hand rashes ruin your winter (aad.org)